For the last two decades, the popular refrain on visiting Cuba has been “Go now before it changes forever”. There have been some startling developments in that time, but the Cuban story, and the country itself, never ceases to captivate and enthral. Here's our list of the best things to do in Cuba.
The information in this article is inspired by The Rough Guide to Cuba, your essential guide for visiting Cuba.
The cays' stunning white-sand beaches sit in isolated splendour at the end of a narrow causeway. Cayo Las Brujas is the most suitable for non-package visitors. Cayo Santa Maria, and its smaller counterpart, Cayo Ensenachos are largely the exclusive domain of hotel guests. Though a couple of commercial “villages” have been built on Cayo Santa María in the last few years.
The drive down the 48km causeway from just outside Caibarién to the islands is quite spectacular. The drive itself is half the fun of a visit. The dark, deeper waters nearer the land give way to shallow turquoise around the cays. They become almost clear as the network of islets increases in number and complexity.
This tailor-made trip to Cuba will take you beyond Havana's city limits, with its cigar smoke-filled jazz bars, to discover other towns, rural villages and plantations across Cuba, not to mention the idyllic Varadero Beach.
One of Cuba's most popular resorts has miles of beaches, including one of the country's best — Playa Pilar. This is Cuba's largest coral reef and its top kitesurfing spot. Two of the islands – Cayo Coco and smaller Cayo Guillermo – have a string of all-inclusive hotels planted along their northern shores.
On the western tip of Cayo Guillermo, gorgeous Playa Pilar is named after Ernest Hemingway’s yacht, Pilar. This beach was the author’s favourite Cuban hideaway. With limpid clear shallows and squeaky-clean sand, Playa Pilar is, without doubt the top beach choice on Guillermo, if not in the entire cays.
You will find more beach destinations in our guide to the best beaches of Cuba.
Tour the isolated prison where Fidel Castro and his cohorts were incarcerated. The looming bulk of the Museo Presidio Modelo lies 2km east of Nueva Gerona. Although this massive former prison has housed a fascinating museum for over thirty years and is now one of the most-visited sights on the island, its forbidding atmosphere has been preserved.
Surrounded by guard towers, the classically proportioned governor’s mansion and a phalanx of wardens’ villas mask the four circular cell buildings that rise like witches’ cauldrons from the centre of the complex.
Remarkably unmarred by modernity but famously ravaged by time and climate, Habana Vieja (Old Havana) remains a true vision of the past, making it a must-see destination for those looking for things to do in Cuba. Cobbled plazas, shadowy streets, colonial mansions, leafy courtyards, sixteenth century fortresses and, at its core, hardly any motorized traffic, make it a real living museum.
But though its central streets are heaving with visitors, Habana Vieja is no sanitized tourist attraction, and the area buzzes with a frenetic sense of life.
As the Carretera Central heads southwest from the provincial capital, it cuts through the famed Vuelta Abajo region, one of the most fertile areas in the country. Here is the source of the finest tobacco in the world. There are countless vegas (tobacco plantations) in this zone, but one, the Alejandro Robaina, has an edge over the rest.
The owners have gone further than any other vega in their efforts to attract tourists, offering engaging guided tours of the plantation, product sampling opportunities and even the chance to meet members of the Robaina family.
An official national park and by far the most visited location in Pinar del Río, the jewel in the province’s crown is the valley of Viñales. With its fantastically located accommodation, striking landscapes and an atmosphere of complete serenity. The valley feels very remote, with a lost-world quality. That’s mainly due to the unique mogotes, the boulder-like hills that look as if they’ve dropped from the sky onto the valley floor.
The valley supports its own microclimate. From roughly June to October, it rains most afternoons, making it a good idea to get your sightseeing done in the mornings. Mosquitoes are also more prevalent at this time of year and insect repellent is a definite must for any visit.
Take this tailor-made Highlight Tour of Western Cuba to explore the main areas: From Havana over the Viñales valley to Trinidad and Che's monument in Santa Clara. This fast-paced itinerary is packed with highlights.
Cuba is a scuba-diving paradise. Most of the major beach resorts, including Varadero, Cayo Coco, Santa Lucía and Guardalavaca have at least one dive centre, with numerous others all over the island, including several in Havana. The most reliable dive sites are generally off the south coast where the waters tend to be clearer, away from the churning waves of the Atlantic Ocean, which affect visibility off Cuba’s northern shores.
Among the marine life you can expect to see in Cuban waters are nurse sharks, parrotfish, turtles, stingrays, barracuda, tarpon, moray eels, bonefish, snapper and tuna. The best time to see whale sharks, arguably the highlight of any diving trip to the island, is in November, while in the spring the fish are in greater abundance.
Bring Cuba’s recent history to life with a day of mountain trekking to explore Fidel Castro’s revolutionary base camps, a unique and exciting addition to your list of things to do in Cuba. The trail is well marked and you can complete the reasonably strenuous climb in around four hours return.
The headquarters are spread over two or three sites, the first of which is the very basic hospital that Che Guevara founded and ran. The second site comprises the guard post, a small but worthy museum and the grave of a rebel who fell in battle.
The southern part of the city, Punta Gorda, has a distinctly different flavour from the rest of Cienfuegos. Open streets and spacious bungalows – unmistakeably influenced by the United States of the 1940s and 1950s – project an image of affluence and suburban harmony.
Other than the magnificent Palacio de Valle, Punta Gorda has no museums and few historic monuments, but does feature the Club Cienfuegos leisure complex and boat trips from the marina.
Discover the charismatic country of Cuba. Begin in the iconic city of Havana, where you'll explore the old town, and enjoy our tailor-made trip to the Highlights of Cuba: Havana, Trinidad and Cienfuegos.
July is the best time to visit Cuba’s second city. This is when its vibrant music scene boils over and the annual carnival brings fabulous costumes, excitement and song to the town. The extravaganza that is Santiago’s carnival has its origins in the festival of Santiago which is held annually on July 25.
Carnaval takes place every year from around July 18 to July 27. The main parade is on the first day, and is followed by smaller parades on the second, third and fourth days. On the 25th, there’s a general parade from 10 pm in honour of the city’s patron saint; the 26th sees a grand parade, and there’s prize-giving on the 27th.
This much-visited sixteenth-century town is packed with colonial mansions and churches, threaded together by cobbled streets and compact plazas. The beautiful Plaza Mayor is the heart of Trinidad’s colonial old town, making it a must-visit destination for those seeking a glimpse of Cuba's rich history and culture on their list of things to do in Cuba.
The fabulous Museo Romántico is an essential part of Trinidad’s delve into the past. With one of the country’s finest and most valuable collections of colonial furniture packed into its fourteen rooms, this 1808-built mansion, formerly owned by Count Brunet, is well worth visiting.
Take a seat alongside the exuberant crowds at one of the country’s timepiece baseball stadiums. For some outsiders, the national Cuban baseball league, the Serie Nacional de Béisbol, is not only one of the best leagues outside of the US to see worldclass players in action. It also represents a nostalgic version of the game, harking back to a time when the sport elsewhere wasn’t spoiled by celebrity and commercialism.
Ride around Havana or Varadero in one of Gran Car’s classic 1950s cars, a testament to Cuban ingenuity. Perhaps the most clichéd image of Cuba is of a classic American car rolling past a crumbling colonial building, and you don’t have to spend long in the country to see why this image has become so ubiquitous.
There are said to be around 60,000 vintage American cars in Cuba. Known as almendrones, most of them are still on the road. Almost all of them were imported from the factories of Detroit during the 1940s and 1950s, when the US was Cuba’s most significant trade partner.
Take the family a step back in time: Explore Havana in classic cars and on foot, take a boat trip to the Cueva del Indio in Viñales and relax on the white, sandy beaches of Cayo Levisa on this tailor-made Family Trip to Cuba.
This lively festival is the perfect showcase for Cuba's jazz musicians. Organized by the Cuban Institute of Music and featuring performances by jazz legend Chucho Valdés, this event is a highlight in the international jazz calendar and a must-see for music enthusiasts looking for unique cultural experiences on their list of things to do in Cuba.
It consistently attracts an excellent line-up: Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Haden and Max Roach have all played in the past, alongside Cuban luminaries such as Bobby Carcassés, Roberto Fonseca and of course Chucho Valdés himself. Venues across the city include Teatro Mella, Teatro Karl Marx, Teatro Amadeo Roldan, Teatro América and the Casa de la Cultura de Plaza.
Cradled by verdant mountains smothered in palm and cacao trees, and threaded with swimmable rivers, the Baracoan countryside has much to offer. El Yunque, the hallmark of Baracoa’s landscape, can easily be climbed in a day. While if you have a car and a little time to spare you could take a drive east along the coast and seek out some quintessentially Cuban fishing villages, including Boca de Yumurí.
Alternatively, just head for the beach – there are a couple of good options northwest of town.
Try this moderately challenging cycling tailor-made trip through Cuban countryside visiting the tobacco fields of Viñales Valley and a pristine Caribbean beach in Cayo Jutias.
The colourful stalls set around this lovely Old Havana square offer a feast of fabulous vintage and pre-and-post revolution magazines, postcards, photos, posters and vinyl, from Cuba and the US. Havana’s largest book market, which for many years dominated the Plaza de Armas, has relocated around the corner.
Among the revolutionary pamphlets, Che Guevara tomes and the occasional novels you can find vintage Cuban and US tourist brochures, postcards and lifestyle magazines. Some reflect on life before Castro. You can also find copies of rare books and all sorts of other collectors’ items — like revolutionary posters and Cuban film art. Starting prices are high – be prepared to haggle.
The most picturesque way to reach Vedado from Centro Habana or Habana Vieja is to stroll down the famous Malecón sea wall, which snakes west along the coastline from La Punta for about 4km. It’s the city’s defining image, and ambling along its length, drinking in the panoramic views, is an essential part of the Havana experience.
But don’t expect to stroll in solitude: the Malecón is the capital’s front room and you won’t be on it for long before someone strikes up a conversation. People head here for free entertainment, particularly at night when it fills up with guitar-strumming musicians, vendors offering cones of fresh-roasted nuts, and star-gazing couples, young and old alike.
If you are looking forward to explore local cuisine - read our guide to the best restaurants in Havana.
Set on a bluff above the Taganana cave and with a magnificent view of the ocean, the Hotel Nacional is a landmark. Home to a princely tiled lobby, and an elegant colonnaded veranda looking out to sea across an expanse of well-tended lawn commandeered by tame guinea fowl.
The perfect cinematic backdrop for a mojito, it was built in 1930 and quickly became a favourite with visiting luminaries. Among them Ava Gardner, Winston Churchill, Josephine Baker and John Wayne – and more. Recently it has added the likes of Naomi Campbell and Jack Nicholson to its clientele.
Few venue openings have caused the stir that this avant-garde arts-centre-cum-club has, with profiles in international papers including The New York Times and The Guardian. Housed in an old peanut oil factory in the far reaches of Vedado, and decked out with sleek lines, minimal shades and multiple rooms, Fábrica de Arte Cubano (FAC) follows the tried and tested route of counter-culture colonization of industrial spaces.
FAC is a unique blend of cosmopolitan culture and traditional Cuban spirit, offering a diverse array of contemporary art and live music. It is a must-see stop on any list of things to do in Cuba for those seeking an authentic experience.
A wonderfully harmonious resort and small working community, Las Terrazas, 74km southwest of Havana, is one of the most important ecotourism sites in the country. About 2km beyond the tollbooth on the main access road, where you pay your entry fee unless you’re staying at the resort’s solitary hotel, there are right- and left-hand sideroads in quick succession.
The right turn leads to the Rancho Curujey visitor centre. Meanwhile, the left turn leads several hundred metres down to the village, a well-spaced complex of red-roofed bungalows and apartment blocks. They are beautifully woven into the grassy slopes of a valley, at the foot of which is a man-made lake. Below the housing, you can see the compact Las Terrazas village buildings dotted around the lake.
The most overlooked of the country's UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the 500-year-old heart of Camagüey, is a great place to wander around. You'll want to explore its tangle of streets, abundant churches and lovely squares. It is also a great place to stay, with an outstanding set of boutique hotels and casas.
On first view, Camagüey is a bewildering place to negotiate, with a seemingly incomprehensible labyrinth of roads that were laid out in a futile attempt to confuse marauding pirates. An aimless wander along the narrow cobbled streets, overhung by delicate balustrades and Rococo balconies, is one of the delights of a visit. Round corners onto handsome parks and happen upon crumbling churches.
The Che Guevara Mausoleum is a memorial in Santa Clara that contains the remains of revolutionary leader Ernesto "Che" Guevara. It was built in 1997, on the 30th anniversary of Guevara's death. The mausoleum is a simple concrete structure that houses a bronze bust of Guevara, as well as an eternal flame that burns in his memory.
The remains of Guevara and his comrades, who were killed in Bolivia in 1967, were exhumed and brought to Santa Clara in 1997, where they were interred in the mausoleum.
The Valle de los Ingenios is a sprawling, open valley bordered by the eastern slopes of the Sierra del Escambray. It was once one of Cuba’s most productive agricultural areas. In its heyday it was crammed with dozens of sugar estates and refineries on which Trinidad built its wealth during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Today just one functioning refinery remains. However, the remnants and ruins of the manor houses and mills that occupied the estates remain dotted throughout the valley. The most intact example is Manaca-Iznaga – though San Isidro de los Destiladeros is also worth visting,
With 22km of creamy-white sands and cerulean waters, Cayo Coco has some of the best beaches in Cuba, hands down, and effortlessly draws holidaymakers to its shores. The best beaches are clustered on the north coast, dominated by the all-inclusive hotels whose tendrils are gradually spreading along the rest of the northern coastline.
Cayo Coco’s big three beaches, home to the all-inclusives and packed with boisterous activities, hog the narrow easternmost peninsula jutting out of the cay’s north coast. For a pocket of tranquillity, escape the main beaches and head to Playa Los Flamencos. The beach offers 3km of fine sands and transparent waters where tangerine-coloured starfish float through the shallows. There’s also good snorkelling out to sea.
Arrive in Havana and make your way all throughout the island with stops in Cienfuegos, Trinidad, Cayo Coco, Camaguey and Santiago before returning to Havana on this tailor-made trip to Complete Cuba - Nature, Tradition and Sights of the Revolution.
If you are inspired by Cuba and it's attractions read our guide to best things to do in Puerto Rico. Also, Cuba is one of the best places for a family holiday. In our guide to the best places to go with kids you will find other attractive family-friendly destinations.
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Ready for a trip to the Cuba? Check out the The Rough Guide to Cuba. If you travel further in Cuba, read more about the best time to go and the best places to visit in Cuba. For inspiration use the itineraries from The Rough Guide to Cuba and our local travel experts. A bit more hands on, learn about getting there, getting around the country and where to stay once you are there.
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